Trace Mendoza, 26, of Anaheim is one of the artists showcasing his work in the "Elephants & Asses" exhibit at AR4T Gallery in Laguna Beach. (KEVIN CHANG, Coastline Pilot / October 24, 2012)

Heated debates about the election aren't just for television.

A one-week art exhibit at AR4T Gallery in Laguna Beach urges patrons to take a step back — think, question and perhaps have a sense of humor about American politics.

"Elephants & Asses" runs from Nov. 1 to 6 and comes at the tail of "Futureland 2012," an exhibit that asked artists to give their interpretation of the American flag.

The show is the first time Director Torrey Cook has given artists free rein to do whatever they want.

"I thought, 'Let's open the doors and let our artists say whatever they want to say about politics leading up to the election,'" Cook said. "There was no direction given."

There are 25 artists in the exhibit — some young, lesser-known names mixed in with familiar faces in the art world.

Trace Mendoza, a Laguna College of Art + Design student, created a piece entitled "American Machine" for the show. Mendoza's drawings, which include smokestacks, people behind bars and the bourgeoisie, combine to form what appears to be a monster. Like pieces fitting together in a puzzle, he describes each to be a symbol of his own frustrations.

"It is the things that you see that you don't have control over," said Mendoza, 26. "I wanted to make this big machine that represented everything I dislike."

A hand holding a cross represents religion used for conquest, not for worship, he said. Bodies exiting a pipe express difficulties with the prison system. Signs that read "No way Jose" and "Two for Juan" hang off the left side of the "monster" and represent the people who want to deport immigrants because they say they take Americans' jobs, but at the same time exploit them for cheap labor, he said.

Jorg Dubin, the artist behind the 9/11 sculpture in Heisler Park and other public works, is part of the exhibit with Jeff Peters and Mark Garry.

Each artist contributed pieces to create one body of work, which is comprised of 30 pieces, he said. They call themselves the Threee Brothers, and the piece is entitled "The Unity Plan."

The tongue-in-cheek pieces include campaign buttons, such as one for Jimmy Carter with a 76 Gas logo and another of Dwight Eisenhower that says "Ike" with a Nike swoosh.

It's not mocking America at all, Dubin said. Rather, he said, it's offering up the idea of everyone coming together.

"We as a nation have a lot of problems that aren't going to get solved by someone wanting to bash someone over the head for their flaws … or ideologues saying it's either our way or the highway," he said. "We're trying to say with 'The Unity Plan' — in a positive and humorous way — is that we aren't trying to get everything we want but what if we stop for a moment from trying to find character flaws ... there could be common ground."

Adam Mars jumped at the chance to show at the gallery, which he thinks is a diamond in the rough in Laguna's arts community.

"It's a great gallery to have in Laguna because Torrey is always offering up underground or progressive minded artists that you might never find in Laguna," said Mars, who grew up in town. "It's some of the same stuff I've been seeing since I was a kid that's been driving the aesthetic of the town."

Mars' piece is meant to poke fun in more ways than one at President Barack Obama. When it comes to his leanings, the artist says he grew up in a politically mixed family and learned to dissect both parties.

"Always question authority — whether it's working or not," he said. "That's the job of artists."

For more information, visit ar4t.com.

joanna.clay@latimes.com

Twitter: @joannaclay

If You Go

What: "Elephants & Asses"

Where: AR4t Gallery, 210 N. Coast Hwy.

When: Nov. 1 to 6, with an opening reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Nov. 1.

Information: info@AR4T.com